Plant-Based Meat, Lab Grown Meat and Clean Meat Explained

by Maggie Tauranac

Published: 4/11/19, Last updated: 11/09/21

This piece has been updated to reflect recent developments.

Any vegan can tell you that meat substitutes aren’t new. A quick trip to the health food store or to Chinatown has turned up everything from textured vegetable protein to mock duck for generations. So why all the buzz around the arrival of new plant-based burgers and fake “meat”? Maybe because they’re the technological promise of preserving our planet by disrupting meat production, or because they’re a terrifying adventure in science fiction dining. Really, it depends on who you ask.

We are still figuring out what to call them but meat substitutes right now fall into two general categories: those made from cells grown in labs and those made from plant-based materials. So far cell-based meats are not available to consumers, but plant-based meats are now ubiquitous. So much so that nearly every top fast food chain is now serving a plant-derived fake meat burger. Vegetarian burger options have been available on the fast food scene for some time, but they’ve flown mostly under the radar. Yet, Burger King, McDonald’s, Qdoba and the like are now taking serious pride in their meatless Whoppers, Big Macs and more. Something that, if asked a decade ago, many of us would have sworn was “impossible.”

If you’re late to the fake meat/plant-based meat party — or “clean meat,” as the industry prefers to be dubbed — here’s a catch-up. There’s a bunch going on here, and none of it is simple.

The FoodPrint of Fake Meat

What are Plant-Based Meats?

For a reducetarian — a person trying to eat less meat — it’s a pretty cool time to be alive. Even if you’re suspicious of the methodology, makers of plant-based meat products like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are scrambling to make a perfect replica of a burger (and other meats) so you don’t have to give up on the meaty flavor you have come to expect and love. These are plant-based alternatives, not meat cells grown in petri dishes.

Even in the plant-based meat market, the options are vast and varied: Beyond Meat patties are made with pea plant protein and dyed with beet juice, while an Impossible Burger’s key ingredient has been genetically engineered with yeast, bacteria and algae to mimic meat. These options, and many more, are flooding the market and investors are eager to be a part of the trend.

What is Plant-Based Heme?

The Impossible Burger uses a leghemoglobin “heme” protein that is supposed to imitate the bloodiness of a good old-fashioned beef burger. The alt burger creators are daring eaters to tell the difference between their burger and its four-legged alter ego. The pitch has the potential for brilliance: if the likeness of meat is achieved, then meat eaters will be willing to swap out their burger for something burger-akin. If they can’t tell the difference, and they gobble them up, there is a possibility the amount of meat being eaten could be reduced. This would also reduce carbon emissions and animal cruelty, simply by providing a plant-based meat alternative that keeps meat-eaters happy enough to forgo the beef.

But critics like Friends of the Earth have rightfully expressed doubt about the safety of products like heme because it’s genetically modified, and just as with other genetic modifications, there is risk of environmental contamination and the loss of control of the engineered organisms.

Additionally, Consumer Reports cautions that “though humans have eaten soy for centuries, we haven’t eaten soy leghemoglobin before. And CR’s scientists advise caution when introducing anything new into the food supply.” The company holds many patents for its products, which allows them to avoid disclosing exactly how the products are made. The food has gone to market with minimal oversight from the FDA, and that has a lot of people feeling nervous about the lack of transparency in a product that isn’t fully understood by the public.

GMO Soy Issues with Impossible Burgers

The heme isn’t the only genetically modified ingredient in Impossible Burger — the burgers are made mostly from soy protein, some of which come from soybeans that have been genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate. This genetic modification isn’t unique to the Impossible Burger; most soybeans grown in the US are GMOs because they make weed control simple for farmers. This widespread adoption has led to a huge increase in the amount of the weedkiller used every year: farmers today spray more than 20 times more glyphosate than they did in the 1990s. Overuse of glyphosate and other herbicides speeds the evolution of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” that threaten both crops and wildland and may harm bees and other wildlife.

While there are some health concerns related to glyphosate — it’s been labeled a “probable human carcinogen” by the International Agency on Cancer Research, and many experts caution against rising levels of glyphosate residues in many foods —  the Impossible Burger itself contains very low levels of pesticide residue. Even if these residues don’t pose any direct risks to consumers, the use of glyphosate in the production of the Impossible Burger perpetuates the other problems of high glyphosate use in the food system.

The Healthfulness of Impossible Burgers

And nutritionists and dieticians point out, plant-based meat options like Impossible Burger are not healthier than their red meat counterparts. They’re highly processed, contain few “whole foods” and use many isolated proteins and fats. Nutritionists agree that minimally processed foods should make up the bulk of our diets.

What is Lab Grown Meat?

More controversial is lab grown meat. You can’t find it in your supermarket yet, but it’s making its way there. Let’s discuss the basics so you can learn why some people are skeptical, and others excited. Lab grown meat (and in this case, the term “meat” is fairly accurate, since on a cellular level, that is precisely what it is) is made by taking a biopsy from an animal’s muscle and then using it to grow more muscle cells in a mixture of nutrients that enable them to multiply, thereby creating meat… from meat.

Why Lab Grown Meat Makes Some Animal Welfare Advocates Happy

Some animal welfare advocates see lab grown meat as a way to avoid unethical treatment — and slaughter — of animals (though some will point out the exploitation of the animal being biopsied). And from strictly a no-animals-have-to-die standpoint, that is a clear and legitimate argument. Looking for solutions that diminish the suffering of beings is a worthy goal, especially if eaters don’t have to compromise their meat-filled lunch to do it.

Why Lab Grown Meat Makes Some Food Safety Professionals Happy

Some food safety and public health advocates see the uniformity and sterility of lab grown meat as a big plus. The risks associated with foodborne illnesses could be reduced by this technology; there would be fewer cases of E. coli, listeria and salmonella poisonings since contact with manure is eliminated, and it could prevent livestock diseases such as swine flu. Antibiotics are presently used in lab grown meat since the current culture methods used are susceptible to bacterial contamination. But that could change once the proof-of-concept work is finished. At that point, systems would be scaled up and the cultures grown in purely sterile environments and without antibiotics, which would preserve a critical public health resource. And if the industry does manage to replace industrialized meat production (it’s a big ‘if’), a lot of communities would fare a lot better without factory farms in their backyards.

Why Lab Grown Meat Has Environmentalists Divided

Environmentalists, however, are split in their responses to lab grown meat. Proponents say cell-cultured meat will release far fewer emissions into the atmosphere than industrialized animal agriculture does. Some argue that the land we currently use for raising animals could be converted to vegetation. This would increase carbon sequestration efforts and could significantly contribute to combating climate change. Others say this technology essentially replaces one resource-intense practice with another (very expensive) one. The comparative research on this is slow-moving though, and the externalities involved are still being weighed.

Why Lab Grown Meat Gives Some People the Heebie-Jeebies

Some opponents caution that our food system is getting progressively more lab grown and industrial, and getting farther away from the values that really matter when it comes to our food system: land stewardship, farmer advocacy and small-scale solutions. Consumers are wary of technologies such as genetic modification in their food supply and many are simply grossed out by the idea of lab-grown meat. (Advocates argue this could be overcome with assimilation.) People are reluctant to accept food they perceive as unnatural and repeatedly push back on scientists with the age-old question of whether we should do something just because we’ve figured out how. 

Okay, But Really, What Do We Call Fake Meat?

We’re not the only ones struggling with this question. Just as dairy farmers and associations are upset about alternative dairy products — like soy “milk” and almond “milk” — being called milk, the beef industry is upset about calling plant-based and lab-grown meat “meat,” saying it’s confusing for customers. Calling it “clean meat,” a term often used to describe lab grown meat, doesn’t make them any happier since it suggests that animal meat is inherently dirty — unsanitary, dangerous or immoral. Calling it “fake meat” sounds pretty unappealing, for both the producers and consumers, since we have so many negative associations with fakery.

Inevitably, it’s getting political. When Mississippi joined several other states in passing legislation to bar veggie burger-like patties from being called “burgers” in 2019, the backlash was intense. The Plant Based Foods Association sued and the states were compelled to relax the guidelines.

Another area of confusion is who regulates these products? After a heated turf war that was downright endearing in its ridiculousness, the FDA and USDA have decided to share jurisdiction over alternative meats. Traditionally, meat falls under the purview of the USDA — but there are occasions where the FDA gets involved. For instance, if a food product has less than 3 percent raw meat or less than 2 percent cooked meat in it, it falls under the purview of the FDA. Another murky example is that egg processing plants are under the jurisdiction of the FDA, but egg product processing plants (for items like liquid egg whites) are under the jurisdiction of the USDA. Your head spinning yet?

Classifying alternative meats has been unsurprisingly complex, with both agencies having the interests of the industries they represent in mind. The USDA could upsell farm-raised meat and label plant-based meats as “fake” to appease the livestock industry, whereas the FDA, which regulates food technologies, could promote these food products and label them whatever would sell best. How this shared jurisdiction will shake out remains to be seen and whose interests will be promoted is still a question mark, so stay tuned.

One Thing Eaters Can Agree On: Transparency

Here’s the thing: Silicon Valley and its tech culture are going to keep offering up sexy solutions to problems that actually have pretty simple answers. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, lentils are great! And if you’re a vegetarian jonesing for something meatier, you could try an Impossible Burger, or you could enjoy a nice meaty portobello mushroom. But if you’re usually a meat-eater, and you’re now eating one of these meat alternatives (and lentils just would not cut it for you), keep in mind that the research being done on these alternatives usually compares them to beef produced in the energy-intensive and climate-taxing industrial agriculture system. It’s important to note that there are other options; regenerative agriculture methods have been found to increase biodiversity, improve soil quality and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, along with producing healthy, better-tasting beef.

Until we know more about the full impact of these alternative products on humans and on the planet, the jury is still out on whether they will be celebrated, feared, avoided or ignored. Regardless of whether and how eaters take to these various alternative meats, it is clear that consumers are concerned about how their food affects their planet and its inhabitants. Transparency is more crucial than ever, especially for eaters who care about animal welfare, sustainability and their own health.

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